China can’t smother growing public demands to clear the air

Tourists wear protective masks in smoggy Tiananmen Square on February 26, 2014, when the air quality was officially ‘hazardous’. EPA/Rolex Dela Pena

Beijing has once again experienced extremely poor air quality, in what is becoming a regular event for the Chinese capital and other parts of the country. But has anything changed since the last “airpocalypse”?

One story that has stood out in the past week has been that of Li Guixin, the first Chinese man to try to sue a government agency over the air pollution.

A resident of Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province, Li Guixin has asked to be allowed to sue the Shijiazhuang Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to “perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law”. He has also demanded 10,000 yuan (A$1,822) compensation for losses caused by the air pollution.

Given the way that more Chinese people are now using social media and other means to demand cleaner air, there is good reason to believe that more citizens will demand more action.

But further politicisation of the issue is very likely trigger internet censorship – which may have already started covertly.

The other day I forwarded an article entitled “China may continue to fog for 50 more years” on my social network-Wechat. I have just found out that both the original article and my post had been deleted at some point.

So why are so many Chinese people so frustrated?

A city on high alert

For a whole week in February, Beijing experienced air quality with a rating worse than 300. Air quality is measured by the amount of tiny particles known as PM2.5. At Air Quality Index (AQI) higher than 300, outdoor activity, even for healthy adults, is considered “hazardous”.

Last year Beijing introduced a four-tier alert system, with blue, yellow, orange and red indicating the air pollution level in an order of increasing severity. Blue indicates severe pollution for one day. Yellow indicates severe pollution for one day or heavy pollution for three consecutive days. Orange indicates heavy to serious air pollution (AQI between 200-300) alternatively for three consecutive days; a red alert indicates the most serious air pollution (above 300) for three consecutive days.

A red alert requires traffic to be cut (with alternative driving days for even- and odd-numbered license plates), schools to be suspended, and industrial plants closed or forced to reduce production.

According to the alert system, pollution in February should have triggered a “red alert”. Instead, the municipal government issued an “orange alert”, which requires fewer restrictive measures.

Even worse, most provinces in central and eastern China had been affected by heavy smog and 20 cities from these areas heavily polluted, according to the satellite monitoring of Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection. The polluted areas accounted for almost a seventh of the national territorial area (9.6 million square kilometres), affecting more than half the population. This is unprecedented but people believe the worst has not come yet.

Thousands of companies are still on the black list of primary polluting sources in local areas. The fundamental solution lies in industrial restructuring. Under the current legal system, the administrative penalty for polluting enterprises and big energy users is too light. The cost of polluting air and water is usually not taken into account compared with the huge economic interests and increasing fiscal levy for local governments. It’s always a nasty game between the enterprises and the governments, and the local interests and the central interests.

The situation is serious enough – but so far it seems the government is not. There is more that they could do, including learning from other cities that have faced these problems before.

Lessons from London to LA

As the first industrialised country in the world, Britain also became first to counter serious air pollution problems. The Great Smog of 1952 caused 4,000 premature deaths and made 100,000 more people ill because of the smog’s effects on human respiratory tract. The total number of fatalities was considered to be around 12,000.

It is known to be the worst air-pollution event in British history and the most significant in the sense that it led to profound changes in governmental practices and regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between environment and health.

London on a misty morning, a reminder of the smog that used to shroud the city. Steve "Shanks" Armitage/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Strict environmental legislation was the primary countermeasure initiated by the then British government. From the Clean Air Act 1956, the first air-pollution control law in the world, to the most recent Air Quality Strategy in 2010, the UK has issued a number of relevant laws and acts over the past half century. In doing so, it has established a complete legal mechanism to tackle the air pollution caused by various sources such as industrial production, dirty energy usage and motor vehicle exhaust.

The UK also implemented more specific measures such as upgrading industrial practices, promoting cleaner energy, improving administrative cooperation, and engaging public supervision and monitoring. After decades of concerted effort, the smoggy London of Charles Dickens’ novels became history.

Los Angeles got its first “big smog” in 1943. Even though it was the largest car market at the time, LA did not make the link between air pollution and vehicle combustion. Smog was commonplace in the ‘50s and '60s, with some parts of cities seeing dangerous smog 200 days of the year.

Only in 1970 did California enact its Clean Air Act, followed by other laws across the country.

LA residents get teary from smog. UCLA Library Photo

In Los Angeles, ordinary citizens played an important role in the legislation of air pollution control. On 22 April 1970, 20 million Americans went out onto the streets to demonstrate support for environmental protection. These grassroots movements made the US government realise the severity of environment pollution and the importance of environmental legislation, and that date continues to be marked as “Earth Day”.

When it comes to the issue of motor vehicle emissions, there are plenty of lessons Chinese cities can draw from LA, which can be briefly summarised into three approaches: improving the quality of fuel; improving the technology of vehicles; and reducing the distances driven in cities through strategies such as public transportation and carpooling.

Although Chinese environmental protection authorities lack the regulatory infrastructures that underpin the implementation of pollution-control measures in UK and US, the Chinese central government’s efficient macro-control should make changes possible.

More importantly, as the air gets dirtier, and public sentiment turns to outrage, more protests can be expected. Both London and Los Angeles’ experience indicates the problems are solvable – but it will take time, possibly several decades, or even longer.

The sooner the Chinese government starts acting more decisively, the sooner Chinese citizens can look forward to breathing more easily again.